Pick of the Geek – Janelle Monaé The ArchAndroid

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If you only know Janelle Monaé from her backing vocals on Fun.’s hit ‘We Are Young’, you’re missing out on one of the most exciting, polymathematic careers in modern pop, the only hope we have of finding an artist who could take the spot in popular culture vacated by Bowie and Prince.  The latter actually turns up for a thrilling duet at the start of her second full-length album The Electric Lady, but before that she released this dizzyingly ambitious 2010 double album.  Monaé wisely doesn’t belabour her concept – something to do with an android slave rebellion led by a messianistic figure called Cindi Mayweather – but it’s clear that she’s studied the relevance of robots as a metaphor for people dispossessed on the grounds of race, gender, economic status or sexuality.  Tracks like ‘Oh Maker’ attain a haunting ambiguity as a result – is the maker a lover?  A god?  A scientist? – and the stealthy, passionate funk of ‘Mushrooms and Roses’ is counter-intuitively cooled off by being sung through a robotic vocal effect.  The Archandroid opens with a medley of three back-to-back irresistible pop songs, showing that Monaé can do what her peers do effortlessly, and cycles through genres including funk, folk, R&B, soul, gospel, bossa nova, electro and the kids’ favourite, Gregorian plainsong.  This ambition would be mere show-offery if the tunes weren’t fantastic, though, and they are.  Outkast’s Big Boi turns up for a rapid-fire verse on the James Brownish ‘Tightrope’, and Of Montreal join in on the jagged, jolting ‘Make the Bus’.  On her own, Monaé’s work is no less extraordinary.  The aforementioned ‘Oh Maker’ begins with finger-picked guitar and an almost medieval vocal melody before slipping into a heartfelt soul chorus so smoothly you don’t notice the genre shift until it’s underway, and ‘Come Alive (The War of the Roses)’ camps up a simple blues-rock melody into something approaching a lost Rocky Horror soundtrack cut.  Best of all is ‘Cold War’, in which Monaé’s gale-force vocal leads her band into a ferocious workout encompassing Northern soul organs, lightning-speed breakbeats and a Hendrix-styled acid rock guitar solo.  And in the middle of it, like a ghost in the machine, Monaé’s social conscience providing the emotional core: “I’m trying to find my peace!” she asserts.  “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me.”

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